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Congress extends visa waiver program for IMGs

The Conrad State 30 J-1 Visa Waiver Program lets international medical graduates stay in the U.S. after training if they practice in medically underserved areas.

By — Posted Oct. 3, 2012

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A program that provides incentives for international medical graduates to practice in rural areas where physicians are scarce is set to get a three-year extension.

On Sept. 13, the House of Representatives voted 412-3 to approve legislation to continue the Conrad State 30 J-1 Visa Waiver Program through Sept. 30, 2015. Advocates of the program in organized medicine say passage of the bill is a victory, but they would like to see more than an extension.

“We are pleased the program has been reauthorized and would like the program to be permanent,” said Elizabeth Lietz, spokeswoman for the American Hospital Assn.

IMGs represent about a quarter of the U.S. physician work force, including practicing physicians and physicians-in-training. Initiated in 1994, the Conrad 30 program allows IMGs to stay in the U.S. after completing their medical training if they agree to work at least three years in a medically underserved community. Without the waiver, physicians who train in the U.S. under a J-1 visa must go back to their home country for at least two years before they can return and apply for permanent U.S. residency.

The Conrad 30 program has had unmitigated success, said Kristen A. Harris, a private immigration attorney with Rubman & Harris of Chicago who represents physicians and health care systems.

More than 9,000 physicians have worked in underserved areas under the program, according to a Feb. 1 letter from the Assn. of American Medical Colleges to the program’s original sponsor, Sen. Kent Conrad (D, N.D.). States are allowed to request up to 30 visa waivers annually under the program.

Allowing more IMGs to practice in the U.S. can help alleviate physician shortages, particularly in the most rural areas where they are more likely to practice than are U.S. medical graduates, Harris said.

“It would encourage physician retention in underserved areas, which is always the challenge — not just getting the doctors there, but keeping them there,” Harris said.

Another piece of legislation would permanently reauthorize and make some changes aimed at improving Conrad 30 (link). Supporters of the Conrad State 30 Improvement Act, which was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Dec. 12, 2011, include the AHA, the AAMC, the American Medical Association and the International Medical Graduate Taskforce.

The bill extending the Conrad 30 program, which was awaiting the president’s signature at this article’s deadline, also extends three other programs for immigrants: the EB-5 Regional Center Program, the E-Verify Program and the Special Immigrant Nonminister Religious Worker Program (link).

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